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In my 10+ years as an HR Generalist, I’ve conducted many a workplace investigation and learned some valuable lessons on how to conduct them properly.

In this article, we’ll discuss why an investigation might be needed, the key components of a successful investigation, and then a step-by-step guide to performing an HR investigation.

When might you need to conduct an HR investigation?

There are several reasons why an internal investigation may need to be conducted within an organization. Let’s discuss some common reasons that HR professionals typically see. 

  1. Employee complaints such as harassment, discrimination, bullying, or minor misconduct. In this case, an HR investigation is typically initiated based on the complaint to gather facts, assess the situation, and determine the appropriate course of action.
  2. An employee is suspected of violating company policies, such as engaging in unethical behavior, breaching confidentiality, or violating safety protocols. An HR investigation should be launched to help establish the facts and take appropriate disciplinary actions.
  3. Allegations of serious misconduct, including fraud, embezzlement, theft, or any other illegal activities within the organization. This ensures a fair and impartial process to determine the truth and address any legal or ethical breaches.
  4. In cases where conflicts arise between employees or departments, an HR investigation can help uncover the underlying issues, gather relevant information, and facilitate a resolution that can improve employee relations.
  5. To ensure compliance with legal and regulatory obligations. For example, an HR investigation may be necessary to address potential violations of employment laws, workplace safety regulations, or industry-specific standards.
  6. In situations where an employee's performance consistently falls below expectations, an HR investigation may be conducted to identify any underlying issues, provide support or training if needed, and determine appropriate action such as performance improvement plans.

What does an HR investigation need to be successful?

Down the years, I’ve learned that any investigation needs to be:

Timely

Respond quickly to all complaints, but take the time needed to exercise appropriate diligence for a thorough and confidential investigation (more on that later).

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Fair and objective

Treat all parties with respect and dignity. Do not pre-judge the outcome of an investigation before all parties have been interviewed and all the relevant documents have been reviewed.  

This will ensure the outcome and any actions taken based on the investigation will be both fair and objective.

Impartial

Avoid expressing opinions when you conduct interviews and focus on uncovering the facts. Keep the investigation interviews serious and business-like, and remain calm and in control throughout the interview. You will likely have opinions on the matter, but it’s important to remain impartial.

Organized

Prepare yourself for the investigation by creating a work plan and an outline of questions that need to be answered by the various parties.

However, make sure you allow flexibility in your work plan as you gain more understanding of the facts during the investigation.

Utilizing case management software is an easy way to stay organized during and after investigations. If that isn’t available to you, organizing cases in individual folders on a restricted network drive works well too.

Well Documented

Document the content of interviews, and write down specifically what the interviewee is saying, using direct quotes whenever possible.

It’s preferable to have witness statements written or narrated by the parties in their own words, in addition to your interview notes. 

Also, document any additional evidence presented to you from parties that you interview, and note who it came from, and when.  

Again, this is not the place to state your personal interpretations, beliefs, or assumptions; just the facts!

Step by step for conducting an HR investigation

Before the HR investigation process begins, it should be determined who will conduct it. 

While I handle the majority of investigations in my workplace, the HR Director handles investigations involving anyone at Vice President level or above. And, if the matter involves any member of the HR team, our general counsel will conduct the investigation. 

Remember, the process of conducting an investigation may vary depending on the specific circumstances and your organizational policies, and you may need to seek guidance from legal counsel during your investigation process.

Let’s dive into a framework you can use to conduct investigations in your workplace.

Step one - Meet with the person raising the concern

Meet with the person raising concerns to discuss the matter, this person may or may not be directly impacted by the issue at hand. You will want to get details regarding the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the matter. 

Get as many specifics as you can during your interview. Ask open-ended questions to encourage the interviewee to respond; try to avoid simple yes/no questions. 

For example:

  • “From your perspective, tell me what you saw when you came back from lunch this day” instead of “Did you see this incident occur?”. 
  • “Can you tell me what you heard in that meeting?” in place of “Did you hear them argue during the meeting?”

Ask if there are any witnesses or people with knowledge of the incident being discussed and the extent of their knowledge (more on this in the next step).

Similarly, ask if there is any evidence that may shed light on the allegations raised, such as emails, notes, audio/video recordings, texts, etc.

Step two - Meet with the potential witnesses

Meet with potential witnesses that were named in step one. You may also find that more witnesses surface as you conduct your investigation. 

When preparing questions for witnesses, think about ways to phrase them to minimize or eliminate the need to disclose the source of the facts underlying your questions. Keep in mind that, depending on the nature of the matter, this may not be possible. 

Before interviewing each witness, explain the need for full and honest answers and remind them of your company’s anti-retaliation policy. If appropriate, advise them that the investigation is ongoing and request confidentiality for the duration of the investigation.

Gather any evidence that witnesses may have that gives corroboration to their statements or relates to the matter and advise the interviewee to contact you if they recall or learn something new, or if the interviewee has any new concerns including retaliation. 

Step three - Meet with the accused employee

Meet with the accused employee. Similar to your prepared questions for witnesses, you want to minimize the need to disclose the source of facts. 

Based on your interviews with the complainant and witnesses, you will have a list of questions that the accused will need to answer. It’s important to remain objective and not express opinions during this interview.

Gather evidence that the accused may have that relates to the matter. This may be the same documentation you received from others, however it should still be collected. 

Again, explain the need for full cooperation, and remind them of your company’s anti-retaliation policy before starting the interview.

Step four - Review and analyze 

Review and analyze all the information gathered during the investigation. Look for any inconsistencies, patterns, or additional evidence that may help in reaching a fair and unbiased conclusion.

Prepare a detailed investigation report documenting the findings. Include a summary of the complaint or incident, the interviews conducted, written statements, all evidence collected, and any conclusions reached.

Based on the findings of the investigation, determine the appropriate course of action. This may involve corrective actions or disciplinary measures, mediation, conflict resolution, or other actions depending on the severity and nature of the issue.

Step five - Share results and proposed actions

Share results and proposed action steps with leadership first, as appropriate. Provide information on the actions to be taken and any follow-up steps.

Then share the final decision with the accused and take the action you determined in step 5 to remedy the situation, as appropriate.

Finally, communicate the results of the investigation with the complainant, but do not share any confidential information, which may include the outcome and actions taken against the accused. This can be a difficult conversation and must be handled appropriately. 

Step six - Review effectiveness

Regularly review the effectiveness of any actions taken and monitor the situation to ensure that the issue has been appropriately addressed. 

Follow up with the parties involved if necessary. This is a crucial step that is often overlooked and can lead to the issue worsening or even creating an incident of retaliation. 

A note on retaliation

Retaliation is the most frequently alleged basis for discrimination, according to the EEOC

Reminding the investigation participants of your company’s anti-retaliation policy is mentioned in several of the steps above. All parties need to understand there is zero tolerance for retaliation in the workplace.

A Timely, Impartial, And Fair HR Investigation

It’s important to note that HR investigations should be conducted with fairness, confidentiality, and adherence to legal requirements and company policies. The primary goal is to ensure a safe, inclusive, and compliant work environment while addressing any issues that may arise.

Using the steps above, your next investigation should be timely, impartial, and fair. 

If you need more before your next investigation you can seek advice in the People Managing People Community, a supportive community of HR and business leaders passionate about building organizations of the future.

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Some further resources to help you with employee relations matters:

Jessica Cieslinski
By Jessica Cieslinski

Jessica is a HR Generalist with 10 years of experience across several industries. She loves to share the knowledge she wishes she’d had early in her career.